Jose Sanchez thought he was just going out for a sandwich. So did his partner, Susan, who didn’t know yet that she was pregnant.
But ICE agents scooped Sanchez up at the sandwich shop in Washington, D.C. that July afternoon, 14 years after he’d first arrived in the United States as a young teenager from El Salvador.
Now, Susan said, she’s going to doctor’s visits alone, working extra shifts to keep the lights on, help Jose fight deportation, and pay for phone calls from the Virginia detention facility where he’s being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pending a December 7 hearing before an immigration judge. Doctors have discovered an unknown issue with her heart during the months her fiance has been locked up, she said, and her longstanding struggles with depression and anxiety have worsened without the man who lifts her spirits.
“I could see if he committed some kind of crime and then they took him in because of not having papers, but it wasn’t like that,” she said. “It just seems really unfair to be held prisoner just for not having papers.”
Instead, ICE has used Sanchez’s full-sleeve tattoos — a common thing among D.C.’s food industry workers — to accuse him of being gang affiliated, and convince a judge to hold him without bond. Sanchez has no gang connections but the tattoos-as-evidence thing fits a pattern of paper-thin gang allegations from ICE, according to Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyer’s Guild who is trying to help Sanchez find representation before his hearing date.
Susan and Jose had been talking about moving in together before his arrest, and decided to marry after Susan realized she was pregnant. At the time, he was being held a seven hours’ drive away in Norfolk, Virginia. Now he’s closer, but still too far from a public transit hub for her to visit unless one of the kind strangers involved with the organization Sanctuary DMV can drive her down to Farmville.
And the paperwork they need to formalize their union has been returned without the necessary notarization from the Farmville facility’s in-house notary public, leaving Jose and Susan without a crucial legal argument as the days tick down toward his hearing.
“Jose told me that they told him they won’t do it. But they’re not telling me that,” Susan, who asked ThinkProgress not to use her last name for fear of reprisals from ICE, said Wednesday by phone. “They were like, ‘Oh, no, we wouldn’t just refuse to notarize it, the notary must’ve just not been there.’ Everybody tells you something different.”
If the two are married, Mao said, the duration of their relationship and the fact of Susan’s pregnancy would likely clear the immigration courts’ hurdles for finding a marriage bonafide, and thus allow Jose to seek the cancellation of his removal order. Even though ICE approved Jose’s request in October to get married inside the Farmville detention center, without the legal and bureaucratic details squared away, the court would likely ignore their relationship in deciding his fate.
Whether a stalling tactic or a good-faith error, Jose and Susan’s inability to get a notarized original copy of the license application to the relevant officials in Prince William County is likely to result in his abrupt removal from the country he’s called home for half his life, leaving Susan alone for the duration of her pregnancy.
“It’s scary. He’s in there, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m here,” Susan said.
Meanwhile, when she calls ICE to try to nudge things along or even just speak with Jose briefly, the agents take it as an opportunity for cruel sniping.
“I was told really bad stuff, like, ‘you’re an American, what are you doing with an illegal piece of garbage?’” Susan said. “Out of every 10 people there’s one nice one there, and I’m being generous. They’re pretty horrible for the most part, and they run you around and make things as difficult as possible.”
Sanchez was one of roughly a dozen people rounded up in D.C. in July by ICE agents in a sweep that prompted hundreds of people to march through the streets in protest. The capital city has long maintained a sanctuary policy that bars local personnel from aiding federal immigration authorities in hunting down undocumented residents like Sanchez. ICE raids inside the District are correspondingly rare – and rumors swirled that a Metropolitan Police Department officer had broken city policy to tip ICE agents off about the residents who were targeted in the July action.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) office did not respond to requests for comment on Sanchez’s case. Sanctuary DMV members have criticized Bowser for not doing enough to help District residents targeted in the July sweep. While the mayor’s office has repeatedly reminded people that it has no practical authority over ICE, the activists have urged her to use her soft-power stature as a big-city mayor to pressure ICE on behalf of Sanchez and the others captured inside District lines by federal officers.
Jose has lived in D.C. for more than a decade, Susan said. He got a couple misdemeanors when he was younger, she said, connected to being tipsy in public and associating with other immigrant kids who police believed had gang ties. But he hasn’t gotten in any legal trouble since then, and has left those friends behind. He’s worked as a chef in the city’s close-knit restaurant industry for years, most recently at a popular joint in a leafy, upper-class patch of the city’s Northwest quadrant.
After meeting through mutual industry friends, Jose began to pursue the slightly older Susan romantically. She shrugged it off at first, she said, thinking him cute and friendly but perhaps a bit too young for her. And then one day in 2017 she agreed to go get coffee, and the spark he felt took for her too, and they were soon talking about moving in together. Susan was sitting in his bedroom thinking about how they’d share the apartment soon when she realized he’d been gone too long for just a sandwich run.
“I texted him, called him, nothing. I sat there for like an extra hour…and then I was walking to work and I just had a bad feeling something awful had happened,” she said, recalling the day he was taken.
The pair had occasionally talked about the frightening new environment facing undocumented working people in the United States, Susan said, but for the most part he remained confident that his straight-and-narrow life and the city’s promise to migrants would keep him safe and stable.
“I don’t want to say you forget about the potential for something like this to happen, but you figure OK, I’m not doing anything, I’m just going to work and going home, I should be fine,” Susan said. “You don’t think about being somewhere getting lunch and getting run up on and asked for papers.”
An ICE agent at the Farmville facility said that detainees must make a second, separate request to see the notary in addition to the request to have paperwork like a marriage license application approved. Jose made that second appointment, Susan said, but the paperwork was sent back un-notarized anyway.
“It’s been over a month. They’re doing it on purpose, because they know it would help him,” she said. “That wasn’t the initial intention behind it, because we were planning on it anyway, but I really feel like they’re taking as much time as possible, on purpose.”
ICE’s central press office said it would look into the allegation that staff are intentionally delaying the couple’s paperwork but explained it would be unlikely to have a useful response by press time. We will update this story if they provide more information.